Christopher urges Russia not to abandon democratic reform

October 24, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, linking U.S. economic aid to continued democratic reforms, cautioned Russia yesterday against suppressing the press or other opposition voices.

"Even when battling the forces of reaction," Mr. Christopher told an audience of professors and students at an economics institute, "true democrats have nothing to fear from a free press."

Underscoring how seriously the United States views the importance of free and fair elections, he offered U.S. help for the parliamentary elections scheduled for Dec. 12. "Here we are prepared to provide, if asked, immediate technical assistance," he said.

While praising the pace of privatization and other encouraging signs of reform, Mr. Christopher returned again and again to the U.S. concern that democracy must be carefully nurtured. The key factor in persuading the U.S. Congress to allocate $2.5 billion in aid for Russia last month, he said, was President Boris N. Yeltsin's commitment to democratic and market reforms.

'Inseparable companions'

"For us those are inseparable companions," he said. "And I would think that the United States' relationship with Russia would be a correct one, but I cannot quite imagine that it would be as supportive and warm as it is under present circumstances if Russia should turn away from democracy."

Later in the day, Mr. Christopher left for Kazakhstan, having successfully completed an important goal of his mission. He had gotten Somalia -- and its associated policy failures -- off the front pages of American newspapers and replaced it with Russia -- a more successful example of U.S. foreign policy.

Symbolically, Mr. Yeltsin spent yesterday in Yaroslavl, a historic city 125 miles from Moscow remembered as the birthplace of the first written Slavic law. He summoned forth visions of Russia's past glories, offering them as a reminder of the unity the country needs now.

In his first visit outside Moscow since the hard-line revolt three weeks ago, Mr. Yeltsin unveiled a huge bronze statue to Yaroslav the Wise, an 11th century prince who created the first written legal code.

The president told a supportive crowd that Yaroslavl brought a tempestuous Russia together. "He understood well the importance of the unity and integrity of the state," he said.

Mr. Yeltsin also said he was about to sign a decree on land, hinting that it would permit the private ownership that the hard-line Parliament had refused to allow. And he promised the nation's new constitution would be put to referendum Dec. 12, describing it as Russia's "first genuinely democratic constitution."

Mr. Christopher made it clear that while the United States had supported Mr. Yeltsin when he dissolved the hard-line Parliament, the time of crisis had passed.

"The United States does not easily support the suspension of parliaments," he said. "But these are extraordinary times. The Parliament and Constitution were vestiges of the Soviet Communist past."

Not surprisingly, the revolutionary change from dictatorship to democracy, from command economy to market economy, was accompanied by traumatic events, he said. And now, Russia must go forward.

"Let me stress that dissent and open debate are not just noisy, sometimes bothersome consequences of democracy," Mr. Christopher said. "Rather, they are vital elements of a democratic and civil society."

After the bloody shoot-out at the Russian Parliament Oct. 3 and 4, Mr. Yeltsin suspended publication of a dozen hard-line and anti-Semitic newspapers, ordering them to change their names and editors. He also banned six parties accused of fomenting revolt.

Backing off suppression

But in an interview with a Russian newspaper two days ago, he appeared to back off such suppression. "We will straighten out these excesses which some officials allowed," Mr. Yeltsin said.

Mr. Christopher carefully extended an offer of U.S. help in the Russian elections. Acceptance of such involvement would be a difficult political maneuver for Mr. Yeltsin, who has been criticized by his opponents for betraying Russian interests in pursuit of American friendship.

"Our efforts, if we were asked, would focus on the nuts and bolts of free elections, from voter education to poll-watching," he said. "As in all countries where we support the electoral process, any assistance we would mobilize here would be politically neutral, nonpartisan and available to all participating parties and groups."

Kazakhstan, in Central Asia, was a major nuclear arsenal for the former Soviet Union. It is the world's fourth nuclear power, after the United States, Russia and Ukraine (which Mr. Christopher plans to visit tomorrow). Its president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has promised to disarm and ship more than 1,000 nuclear warheads to Russia.

The United States has offered $85 million to pay for the dismantling and shipping. During this visit, Mr. Christopher was prepared make sure that the promise was kept by offering to increase the package to $140 million to provide humanitarian aid and technical assistance. The figure includes $15 million to help save the Aral Sea, which has been severely damaged by irrigation projects and other environmental abuse.

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